A conciliatory Rick Perry cruised through a half-day Senate confirmation hearing today for secretary of the Department of Energy before a Senate committee in a performance that was long on warm words and vague promises and short on tough questions from a low-energy Democratic contingent.
Even before the hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee ended in the early afternoon, Democrats rushed out a press release claiming the former Texas governor had promised to protect jobs tied to science and innovation - including climate science - at the department.
While Perry said he has "extraordinary respect" for DOE scientific staff, he repeatedly hedged on the specifics of what exactly would be protected under questioning about a leaked Trump plan to eliminate several units at the agency considered technology incubators, such as the Office of Fossil Energy, which funds so-called "clean coal" projects, as well as the depatment's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy unit.
The list of things Perry couldn't promise to do or continue when he takes over at DOE was a long one. He wriggled out of repeated attempts to coax him into promising not to open the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste site in Nevada, a deep storage facility for high level radioactive waste.
"Can you say that testing of nuclear weapons is a dangerous idea?" asked Senator Bernie Sanders, referring to president-elect Trump's seemingly offhand comment that he might resume nuclear testing and the arms race ("Let it be an arms race," Trump said.)
No, he couldn't say it was a dangerous idea, was the thrust of a long wandering reply by Perry, who did however promise to protect the electrical grid and infrastructure from cyberterrorism.
Pushing back against the fossil energy industry's claim that reducing fossil fuel use is a "job killer," Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, the ranking minority member of the committee, rattled off a list of job-killing harm caused by greenhouse gases in her state, including the depletion of fisheries and extreme weather. She said a forthcoming Government Accountability Office report would put the damages from climate change-related damage in the trillions of dollars.
Perry claimed to have broken with his long record of climate denial as Texas governor, which included appointing deniers to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state's environmental protection agency.
But Perry's opening statement equivocated, saying it was his "belief" that climate change was real and that "some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by manmade activity."
"This shouldn't be a matter of belief," said New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich.
Several other Democrats grilled Perry about where his true beliefs on climate lay. The most memorable moment came when Senator Al Franken of Minnesota interrupted as Perry explained why he didn't know enough to say how much of global warming is due to human activity.
"I don't think you're ever going to be a climate scientist," said Franken, "but you're going to be secretary of energy."
And helpfully, Perry did try to make clear that he does favor the continued existence of the department he has been chosen to run.
"My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking," said Perry in his opening remarks.
Perry also expressed unequivocal support for the DOE's carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) development programs which helped pay for prototype "clean coal" power plants like the Petra Nova facility that came on-line this month in Texas, and the still non-functional $7.2 billion Kemper Energy CCS boondoggle in eastern Mississippi, the most expensive power plant ever built in the U.S. per megawatt. Perry promised Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota he would "work on those technologies to be commercialized."
Though Perry has a long, dismal record of pay-to-play appointments in state government, amassing a sizeable personal fortune during his 14 years as governor, there seemed no nervousness on the Senate panel about putting him in charge of an agency that is the largest civilian contractor in the federal government and is responsible for a $30 billion budget - almost four times that of the EPA..
The Senate panel also voiced near-unanimous support for the alleged benefits of carbon capture and sequestration, even though the $7 billion the department got for its clean coal grant programs has produced almost nothing but costly failures, such as the FutureGen 2.0 project, which DOE cancelled, and the Texas Clean Energy project (TCEP), which Perry endorsed as governor.
A report last year by the department's Inspector General said the TCEP should not get more DOE money because the project has failed to attract private capital despite six years of effort, with project design still yet to begin. During these six years, estimated project costs doubled from $1.9 billion to $3.9 billion.
The IG's report criticized the Department for "taking actions that increased its financial risk," allowing the TCEP to take DOE money intended for planning the project and spend it on current needs. By February 2016, the Department had already spent $116 million without any assurance the TCEP would succeed.
Meanwhile, a far bigger project, the Kemper “clean” coal project, which to date has received some $407 million in DOE grants, not only doesn’t work, but has cost six times its initial budget of $1.2 billion. Yet DOE continues to uncritically support a boondoggle that saddles local utility customers with unsustainable rate increases. While the DOE’s Inspector General has investigated DOE’s relationship with the much smaller TCEP, there has been no such investigation of Kemper. Indeed, just last April, DOE allocated another $137 million in funds to Kemper.
The reason seems to be an unusually cozy relationship between plant builder Southern Company and the DOE, with Southern CEO Tom Fanning and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz touring Europe and Asia to hawk Kemper’s proprietary coal technology.
Given Perry's record in Texas, there seems little reason to believe he will rein in the DOE's tendency toward cronyism.